Pool B: Results don’t tell the whole story with Conor O’Shea’s Italy
The Azzurri have been lumped with a tough group but can continue steady progression
Sergio Parisse is appearing in his fifth Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Who are they
The Italians will embark on a tough four match schedule in the build-up to Japan that will see them travel to Dublin, Paris and Newcastle while hosting Russia at San Benedetto del Tronto. Sergio Parisse has been a wonderful servant to Italian rugby and in his pomp one of the best players in the world but that hasn’t been the case for several seasons now and the time has come to let go of the comfort blanket, so to speak.
The bare statistics don’t make good reading for Conor O’Shea, without a win in 15 matches over the past three Six Nations Championships, but beneath the surface the issues are less stark, when the performances at underage level and the players coming through are factored into the equation. The Dubliner signed a four year contract in 2016 that takes him up to after the 2020 Six Nations and during that first season led the Azzurri to a first ever win over the Springboks in Florence. Italy were probably the most consistently competitive they have been during the Six Nations just gone.
Leonardo Ghiraldini ruptured knee ligaments during the Six Nations and is fighting to be fit in time for the tournament. The 34-year-old Toulouse hooker is such a combative presence and offers more than just experience. If he doesn’t make it then the captaincy is likely to revert to Parisse, who is playing in his fifth World Cup.
The one to watch
Matteo Minozzi has been out for a year with an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained in a club game for Zebre but was back training with Wasps, whom he signed for at the start of the year, and has taken a full part in the Italians World Cup preparations. The Padua born fullback made his debut in 2017 but it was in the 2018 Six Nations that everyone was treated to his prodigious ability; he scored four tries, made the team of the championship and just lost out to Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale for the individual honours. A brilliant attacking player, he has the capacity to beat players and score tries.
Their RWC moment
There is an argument to advance that their 31-21 pool defeat to New Zealand in the 1991 tournament was a high commendable effort but four years later in South Africa, the Azzurri beat Argentina 31-25 and a central player for the Italian was their Argentine born outhalf Diego Dominguez, who chipped in with a try, four penalties and two conversions. Italy had only narrowly lost 27-20 in their previous pool match to England.
Best RWC finish
Pool stages: 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015
They are in an absolute pig of a group in terms of trying to escape it given the presence of the All Blacks and Springboks - they did beat South Africa in 2016 for the first time but under Rassie Erasmus the latter have moved on appreciably - but they will be expected to beat Canada and Namibia. The key going forward will be found in the performances but unless they can pull off a huge shock, ala Japan in 2015, then a pool exit is on the cards.